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Why Conservatives Hate Europe

BY J. CARTER WOOD
07.22.2002 | POLITICS

Europe seems to have a strongly diuretic effect on American conservatives, judging by the latter's pissy mood of late. Conservatives have always seen the continent as a bit prissy and gutless, and recent events, it seems, have done little to sway their opinions. When Europeans were hesitant about some of the more far-reaching aspects of Bush's War on Terror, Colin Powell reproached them for "getting the vapors," and implied a weak-kneed effeminacy in the face of American masculine resolve. Never slow to take up a well-worn cliché, Newsweek dutifully dubbed the continent "hysterical" and, in a two-part rant for the Weekly Standard, David Brooks sought to out its citizens as closet "bourgeoisophobes." In April, the normally-thoughtful Atlantic Monthly published a piece by Walter Russell Meade with the depthless title "The Case Against Europe." George Will, meanwhile, has been on a personal crusade against European "decadence," "perversity" and "anti-Semitism" while his right-wingman Jack Kemp has announced the beginning of "a hateful anti-Jewish climate in Europe not seen since the end of the Third Reich." When not portrayed as threatening, Europeans are depicted as merely ridiculous. At Slate, Joe Klein concludes--non-complimentarily--that France "is like America in the 1970s," and a giddy defender of Barbie dolls thinks that even Europe's toys are boring and sexist. Proving that the "special relationship" is not quite dead, British campaigners against the European single currency unveiled a shiny new ad in July, which feature a comedian dressed as Hitler intoning "Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Euro!"

This last, of course, is not terribly surprising. Hun-hating has a long history in Britain, and its thorny branches have been firmly grafted onto the hearty weed of anti-Europeanism. But across the Atlantic, the Continent used to inspire more mixed feelings. We weren't always so sure that they were wrong, or (more to the point) that we were always right. In the late 80s and early 90s, America seemed dispirited and uncertain after switching off the Cold War. It was the (now-deflating) economic bubble that sparked a new surge of smugness, which has only been reinforced by a booster shot of self-pitying patriotic paranoia in the wake of September 11th. So we get what we are seeing now: the opening ripples of new-wave, anti-Continental Zeitgeist.

The most poisonous parcel in the recent airmail is David Brooks's "Among the Bourgeoisophobes: Why the Europeans and Arabs, each in their own way, hate America and Israel." Brooks is very pleased that he has (finally!) discovered the reason for the lack of universal acclaim for America: a pathological hostility toward "success." "The battle lines are forming," he states, but since he is so breathtakingly undifferentiated, their shape remains mysterious. According to Brooks, the plague of bourgeois-hating began in the 1830s among "a group of French artists and intellectuals," and now infects "places as diverse as Baghdad, Ramallah, and Beijing." "Today's bourgeoisophobes are not just artists and intellectuals," he says, "they are as likely to be terrorists and suicide bombers." "They have only their nihilistic rage," he goes on, and their curiously diverse arsenal includes "their envy mixed with snobbery, their snide remarks, their newspaper distortions, their conspiracy theories, their suicide bombs and terror attacks."

To some people, these may seem an impossibly broad accusation (since when do snide remarks and suicide bombing fall into the same category) but Brooks is untroubled by such nuances, because it all comes from the same place. Though he gives some stick to the "brutalist" school of the phobics--today's bombers and murderers--he makes the claim that even these have European roots, because they got their start--guess where--in Germany. With Nietzsche. (I can just imagine the Taliban gathered deep in their mountain fortresses exchanging memorized epigrams from "Thus Spake Zarathustra" before taking on the infidel.) However, Brooks is equally enraged at the "ethereal" phobics of Europe. They are, he assures us weightily, "quite a bit more complicated" since they are "bourgeois themselves," but are weighed down with feelings of impotence and self-hatred. As a result, they feel an instinctual loathing for the "heroic bourgeois nations," which include--surprise, surprise--the US and Israel. For the Europeans, "the imperial confidence is gone, along with the youthful sense of limitless possibility and the unselfconscious embrace of ordinary striving."

Good thing too, some might say, because countries, like people, have to grow up sometime. But rather than taking on any particular criticism, Brooks weaves a series of ill-fitting blanket statements. Critical of American culture? Uneasy at unilateralism or imperialism (whether in its all-American or Zionist variety)? Clearly the symptoms of an unbalanced subconscious and of a people "who simply can't remember what it's like to be imperially confident, to feel the forces of history blowing at one's back, to have heroic and even eschatological aspirations."

You may have noticed the swooning passion for imperialism, which is, to say the least, revealing. An earlier thread of American criticism of Europe--from the Founders through, say, Mark Twain--was based upon a disgust of Old World colonialism. That was, of course, before Americans themselves took up the White Man's Burden. And I'm still tripping over Brooks's praise of "eschatological aspirations." "Eschatological," of course, refers to the end of the world, so unless he's calling for Judgement Day, I'm not sure where this fits in to his heroic worldview.

George Will deploys a similar mixture of alarm and condescension: "such is the richness of European culture, even its decadence is creative. Since 1945 it has produced the truly remarkable phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews. How does Europe do that?" The many lively Jewish communities in Europe, such as the growing one in Berlin, may note the fundamental dishonesty of the "without Jews" comment. But the trick here is the same elision that Brooks has mastered: the Holocaust is now the common possession of all Europeans and their "culture," and they are to be beaten over the head with it if they show anything less than love, American-style, for Israel. Of course, America has its own haters (the better-armed majority of whom have their political niche on the right), but Will assumes, without substantiating, something particularly "European" about anti-Semitism, while apparently missing the point that Europe's far right (who share Will's suspicion of the EU) focus their rage on Muslims. The real anguish seems to be that "perverse" European elites--for the anti-Continentals, Europe seems to be composed only of "elites"--are dismantling the nation state and destroying personal freedom.

Into these sour vapors comes The World We're In (Little Brown, 2002; not yet published in the United States), British author Will Hutton's deflation of some key American myths about Europe and about itself. Hutton concludes that American economic might, though formidable, is shakier than its conservative cheerleaders care to recognize. American firms (and, increasingly, Americans' life savings) are now shackled to Wall Street, an institution that has proven to be of questionable value in producing companies that can endure. What it gives us instead is corporations in a manic quest to maintain their stock prices by whatever means necessary, including, as we now know, the creation of a new branch of imaginative fiction that was once known as accounting. Hutton questions "whether the shareholder value, free-market thesis works on its own terms," particularly since America has long been recognized as the most unequal society in the industrialized West.

The standard conservative response to such criticism is that inequality is a sign of national vitality, dynamism and social mobility, in contrast to "socialist" and "sclerotic" European economies, which have been burdened by feudal mentalities, welfare states and militant unions. But Hutton argues that American corporate organization prefers predatory takeovers and slash-and-burn employment practices to growing stable firms capable of improving long-term productivity. He looks closely at European examples of what different legal and economic approaches, corporate structures and business cultures can generate. The growth of the American economy was, in his view, undeniable and impressive, but also built upon a massive expansion in demand, the pillars of which--consumer debt and foreign investment--are precarious and unsustainable. What's more, European income and social mobility is as good--and possibly better--than that of the United States. Hutton explores a self-perpetuating, quasi-aristocratic American elite who has been assisted by government policies based on the principle that to those that have shall be given. If American social outcomes are so poor, and their justifications lacking, then this "immense confidence trick" has a lot to answer for. And this, essentially, is Hutton's target: the smug imposition of this vicious and lackluster model on a global scale. Mere bourgeoisophobic bitching you say? Hardly. Hutton celebrates "unambiguously capitalist" Europe, and while anti-conservative, he is in no way "anti-American."

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World (Penguin Books, 2002), re-released this year in a new paperback edition, kills some sacred cows of its own. Examining the drive-thru culture that is now as American as reheated apple pie, Schlosser documents the decline of independent ranchers and farmers (goodbye to the heroic cowboy); the transformation of food processing into a de-skilled, de-unionized, and dangerous sector of the American economy; and the erosion of the public sphere. Franchising, for example, is one of the cornerstones of the new economy, and a closer look at it reveals the fundamental flabbiness of Brooks's categories, which idealize both the bootstrapping and independent (if philistine) nineteenth-century bourgeois as well as modern conglomerate capitalism. While many of the fast-food pioneers exemplified a rebellious independence, the economy they created enforces a slavish corporate devotion, expressed best by Ray A. Kroc himself: "We will make conformists out of them in a hurry...The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization." Schlosser points to the recklessness of the (very) few, (very) immense companies that dominate food production and endanger workers and consumers through injury and food-borne illness, and that make every effort to avoid competition through collusion.

A more recent postscript concerns the EU's intention to label any food products that, over a certain threshold, contain genetically-modified ingredients. American government and business has, predictably, lobbied vigorously against the very "free-market" notion that purchasers should be able to make informed choices. In light of this, Brooks's evocation of an American "commercial culture" that "favors the consumer but does not ease the rigors of competition for producers" should perhaps be left behind as a fairy tale for young stockbrokers.

What causes anti-Continentalism? Internationally, Europe is emerging as an economic and ideological competitor to the United States, committed to a model of multilateral globalization, guided by different kinds of social contracts and now with a unified currency. It has proven itself willing to disagree with the US and to fight back. Certainly these factors play a role. But the fact that criticism of Europe has mainly come from the right suggests something else: two decades of conservative assaults on the legacies of the New Deal--and celebration of what the German weekly Der Spiegel has recently called "predatory capitalism"--might be severely undermined by the success of a different set of values, rules and social outcomes. Like anti-Communism before it, anti-Continentalism is aimed domestically at whatever "liberal" elements still remain.

Underneath these two fairly straightforward factors, however, lies something deeper and more irrational. As Brooks writes, approvingly,

The Israelis are driven by passionate Zionism to build their homeland and make it rich and powerful. Americans are driven by our Puritan sense of calling, the deeply held belief that we Americans have a special mission to spread our way of life around the globe.

I would suggest that it is precisely this sort of fanaticism that civilized societies should be most on guard against. The idea of a people predestined is as common to radical Islam, after all, as it is to the extremities of Zionism and American fundamentalism. Europeans at one time had two things that America has subsequently developed: aristocracy and empire. Much to their benefit, they have (with the possible exception of Britain) given up on both. They are not, moreover, saddled with the frenzied need to tell themselves that--every day and in every way--they are becoming a better Chosen People. This need was much in evidence in the "debate" over the Pledge of Allegiance, and drives an anxious, even paranoid, refusal to accept that anyone, anywhere might live as well, if not better, a mantra that America's leaders and its media do everything in their power to reinforce. The question of whether or not this is a sign of American strength or weakness should, I would think, answer itself. But while conservatives may yearn for the feeling of the "forces of history blowing at one's back," they should never forget that such breezes can shift, and that pissing in the wind is a sure way to get oneself wet.

About the Author
J. Carter Wood recently completed a Ph.D. in British history at the University of Maryland, College Park and lives in Germany. When not writing about the history of violence, he struggles to come to terms with the German subjunctive mood.
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